A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a demo Crew Dragon spacecraft lifts off for a test flight to the International Space Station from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., March 2, 2019. Aboard is one passenger: a life-size test dumm
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a demo Crew Dragon spacecraft lifts off for a test flight to the International Space Station from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., March 2, 2019. Aboard is one passenger: a life-size test dumm

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. - America’s newest capsule for astronauts rocketed Saturday toward the International Space Station on a high-stakes test flight by SpaceX.

The only passenger was a life-size test dummy, named Ripley after the lead character in the “Alien” movies. SpaceX needs to nail the debut of its crew Dragon capsule before putting people on board later this year.

This latest, flashiest Dragon is on a fast track to reach the space station Sunday morning, just 27 hours after liftoff.

Five day round trip

It will spend five days docked to the orbiting outpost, before making a retro-style splashdown in the Atlantic next Friday — all vital training for the next space demo, possibly this summer, when two astronauts strap in.

“This is critically important ... We’re on the precipice of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil again for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. He got a special tour of the pad on the eve of launch, by SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk.

An estimated 5,000 NASA and contractor employees, tourists and journalists gathered in the wee hours at Kennedy Space Center with the SpaceX launch team, as the Falcon 9 rocket blasted off before dawn from the same spot where Apollo moon rockets and space shuttles once soared. Across the country at SpaceX Mission Control in Hawthorne, California, company employees went wild, cheering every step of the way until the capsule successfully reached orbit.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley, left, and Bob Behnken
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley, left, and Bob Behnken answer questions during a news conference, March 1, 2019, before the Falcon 9 SpaceX Crew Demo-1 rocket launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The astronauts are assigned to fly in the

Looking on from Kennedy’s Launch Control were the two NASA astronauts who will strap in as early as July for the second space demo, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. It’s been eight years since Hurley and three other astronauts flew the last space shuttle mission, and human launches from Florida ceased.

Private companies

NASA turned to private companies, SpaceX and Boeing, and has provided them $8 billion to build and operate crew capsules to ferry astronauts to and from the space station. Now Russian rockets are the only way to get astronauts to the 250-mile-high outpost. Soyuz tickets have skyrocketed over the years; NASA currently pays $82 million per seat.

Boeing aims to conduct the first test flight of its Starliner capsule in April, with astronauts on board possibly in August.

Bridenstine said he’s confident that astronauts will soar on a Dragon or Starliner, or both, by year’s end. But he stressed there’s no rush.

“We are not in a space race,” he said. “That race is over. We went to the moon and we won. It’s done. Now we’re in a position where we can take our time and make sure we get it right.”